The Republican War on Democracy Has Spread to Ballot Measures

Time and again, when Republicans hold power, they wield it to silence the will of the people by making it harder for citizens to pursue direct democracy.

In the aftermath of the 2022 midterm elections, analysts are wondering why the seemingly inevitable Republican wave did not materialize. As we sift through the surprising results, there is a common denominator among many of the progressive victories: ballot measures. All five ballot measures on abortion went for the pro-choice side, as Republicans and independents joined Democrats to expand and protect reproductive rights. In Nebraska and Nevada, voters overwhelmingly voted to increase their state's minimum wage, even as Republicans won big races in both states. And, South Dakota became the most recent Republican-controlled state to pass Medicaid expansion.

Republican legislators regularly introduce restrictive bills after their constituents approve progressive policies at the ballot box.

In state after state, midterm voters expressed their support for progressive policies through ballot measures. Yet while successful citizen-led ballot measures have led to progressive change in states across the country--and progressive leaders are already planning for measures that will be on the ballot during the 2024 election--access to the ballot measure process itself is not guaranteed.

For years, Republicans have been trying to subvert direct democracy and restrict access to ballot measures. In examining hundreds of ballot measure-related bills across the United States from 2017 through 2021, we found hundreds of instances of Republican legislators attempting to restrict ballot measure processes through higher petition signature thresholds, intensive petition circulator obligations, stringent election process requirements, and other restrictions. Even more significantly, we found that when Republicans hold a trifecta--controlling the governor's mansion and both houses of the legislature--legislators are much more likely to introduce bills that restrict the ballot measure process. Time and again, when Republicans hold power, they wield it to silence the will of the people by making it harder for citizens to pursue direct democracy.

These trends are even more alarming when put into context. Republican legislators regularly introduce restrictive bills after their constituents approve progressive policies at the ballot box--often by large margins. Missouri legislators introduced 74 bills that attacked direct democracy between 2017-2021, many introduced directly after Missourians voted for wildly popular ballot measures, like medical marijuana legalization and minimum wage increase measures. And, in Florida, the most aggressive legislative efforts followed on the heels of voters restoring the right to vote to Floridians with felony convictions in 2018, with lawmakers introducing several restrictive bills in 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Moreover, before the 2022 general election, Republicans attempted to subvert specific ballot measures, to overthrow the will of the people. For example, in late August, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision to invalidate a voting rights measure based on overwhelming challenges by conservatives--including those with ties to former President Trump--even though the initiative collected twice the number of required signatures. In Michigan, the Michigan Supreme Court had to step in after Republican members of the State Board of Canvassers refused to certify a pro-choice initiative and a voting rights initiative for placement on the ballot. And, Republicans are expected to push for additional restrictions to the ballot measure process in the coming months.

It is no secret why right-wing Republicans are working so hard to undermine direct democracy. Conservatives know their policy platform is deeply unpopular, so they must resort to structural impediments that allow the minority to rule. These efforts reflect a broader conservative goal--to deny the will of the people for the benefit of the few. Recent history shows that ballot measures are one of the most powerful tools Americans have to participate in our political system, and the GOP should be ashamed by their efforts to restrict this critical pillar of American democracy.

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